A trail of stenciled red llamas signal the path up to Chacho, a new aguardiente distillery and bar in Manor Park that produces a clear, Colombian-style sugar cane liquor with a hot pepper kick and a cult fanbase.
Named after the llama that founder Dan Ziegler rode during a carefree visit to Bogota, Chacho is a jalapeno-infused spirit with a South American origin story. The bar and tasting room (6031 Kansas Avenue NW) sit above an unassuming industrial strip mall, ready to welcome adventurous guests for cocktails and tours available by reservation starting Friday, May 14.
Ziegler launched Chacho five years ago as a self-funded, one-man company. Until recently, he was distilling at a facility in Iowa, flying back and forth from D.C. to make it happen.
“I was always local to here but it wasn’t actually made here,” Ziegler says. “There was no brick-and-mortar distillery that people could touch and feel.”
Translating to “fire water” in English, aguardiente is a clear, un-aged liquor like moonshine. On the nose, Chacho tastes green and vegetal. It’s bright and earthy, with wafts of chile heat. The spice is present, certainly, but it has a subtle sweetness that rounds it out. There’s also a warming, barrel-finished version that takes vanilla and oak notes from used bourbon barrels. Ziegler says he’s open to creating a non-spicy option in the future, though that would live outside of the Chacho name.
“I’m perfectly content with people who don’t like spicy not liking Chacho,” Ziegler says.
A neat pour is the purest way to enjoy Chacho, but the new bar also offers cocktails riffing on recognizable combinations, like a citrusy Chacho-rita or the gingery Medellin mule. Another section of the menu recreates Chacho cocktails from bars around D.C. The Dalai Parton, credited to The Pub & The People, blends barrel-finished Chacho, Catoctin Creek rye, pineapple, honey, lemon juice, and a homemade chipotle hot sauce to produce a smokey and fruity drink with flavors reminiscent of tacos al pastor. La Fonda Paisa cafe in Silver Spring provides a small section of food to Chacho’s bar.
The colorful and homey design inside was largely a DIY project. The decor includes a wooden llama with faux fur that provides a natural photo opp. The bar also plans to display and sell a rotating selection of Colombian artwork, with proceeds supporting artists in the country.
Down the hall from the vibrant bar is the production facility, designed for bottling, tastings and, eventually, distilling. For now, Chacho is importing a 180-proof cane sugar base from South America and finishing the process from there, including adding its proprietary jalapeno infusion. Guests can get a quick demonstration of the distilling process and the opportunity to taste a few spirits, including the two varieties of Chacho paired alongside one of Colombia’s well-known aguardiente brands. Expect art in here too, including showcases for D.C. painters and a half-airplane sculpture fabricated from leftover duct work. Ziegler hopes his new space will expand the name recognition and appreciation for Chacho across the city.
“We don’t need to be the most popular bar in town here,” Ziegler says. “I want people to find out about [Chacho] here, leave, and be drinking it out there.”
The idea for Chacho started as a pipe dream after Ziegler traveled to Colombia with some friends from college. The group took a liking to aguardiente, the local liquor of choice. “If you went to Colombia and didn’t have aguardiente, it would be like going to Mexico and not having tequila,” Ziegler says.
Colombian aguardiente is commonly made with anise, and Ziegler was amazed at how much he enjoyed it, considering his usual distaste for that flavor.
“When I got back I thought, man, they made that so good with something that I don’t even like,” he says. “How can I do my own thing, my own twist?”
The answer came from his love of spiciness in everything including liquor. Ziegler felt the existing hot spirits tasted artificial or lacked the fiery kick he craved. So he started experimenting with small home batches, leaning on friends and family to dial in the recipe. After three-and-a-half years of tinkering, he found the balance of spicy and smooth for Chacho. The original recipe is bottled at an easy-drinking 35 percent ABV.
“You never really get an alcohol burn, and that’s why it’s so fun and delicious,” he says.